The 31-year-old teacher indicted on charges of child abuse and endangering the welfare of a child after cellphone video surfaced showing her manhandling a child at Hoboken Apple Montessori School in New Jersey said she's devastated by the allegations and is usually "great with kids."
Kelli Dugan was among the five teachers, aides and officials fired from the school after several videos, including the one featuring Dugan, emerged showing workers inappropriately handling children. A grand jury opted to indict Dugan, but cleared another one of the employees in the videos.
The clip of Dugan obtained by NBC 4 New York in May shows her in red, sitting and holding a 2-year-old girl by her legs, preventing her from moving freely. The teacher is heard cursing in the video; she yells at the child and eventually swings her over a fence before dragging her back inside.
As she headed into an initial court appearance Thursday, a tearful Dugan exclusively told NBC 4 New York she doesn't really remember that day but said it was probably just a bad day. She said she has seen the video and understands why people would get "the wrong idea" but insists she loves the kids she worked with at Hoboken Apple Montessori School and misses them greatly.
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She said she probably could have handled the situation better than she did.
Dugan said she's terrified by the severity of the charges; she says the video and subsequent indictment have ruined her life. She says she had to move and hasn't been able to find work.
Dugan's attorney, Anthony Carbone, says the prosecutor is making an example of his client. He says the allegations against her do not rise to the level of the charges in the indictment.
Dugan pleaded not guilty at Thursday's arraignment. Her bail was set at $35,000.
After the videos emerged, Apple Montessori, which runs 17 schools in New Jersey, said it implemented a comprehensive five-point plan to reinforce staff training, enhance security, and strengthen protocols for child safety and security.
"Because this matter is part of litigation, the school is placed in an awkward position regarding what can be shared through the media – even when challenging inaccurate and exaggerated claims," Apple Montessori said in a statement Thursday. "However, it is important to emphasize that the school’s ownership took immediate and definitive action when learning of the incident – including the immediate termination of the employee involved."
"The behavior depicted in a related video clearly is inconsistent with the school’s reputation for high-quality education, which has been maintained by more than 2,000 teachers and staff who have cared for students during the school’s 42-year history," the statement said.
Meanwhile, the parents of the two children have filed a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages from Apple Montessori Schools and several employees for negligence, emotional damage, breach of contract, assault and other charges.
"While we remain saddened by the events that occurred at the Apple Montessori School, and continue to wonder with fear about what may have happened to our daughter when the video wasn’t rolling, we take some comfort in knowing that at least one person will be judged in a court of law for her actions against our daughter," Corey Stern, a lawyer for one of the families, said on his clients' behalf
The Hoboken Prosecutor’s Office urges anyone who knows a child is being abused to report it to the New Jersey Department of Children and Families hotline at 1-877-NJ-Abuse, local police departments, or the Prosecutor’s Office Special Victims Unit at 201-915-1234.